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Bees Consume Honey for Healing of Infections, Longevity

Honey bees
Honey bees on honeycomb. New research shows that bees ingest honey to address a wide range of problems from infections to poisoning from pesticides. Credit: A.P. / Greek Reporter

Honey isn’t just for gourmets, who enjoy the many nuances of flavors given to it by pine trees, orange blossoms, or other flowers all around the world. Scientists have now proven that bees consume honey not only for their own nutrition and energy needs, but to fight off infections, and they know exactly which type of honey can address an array of problems.

The great number of health benefits for bees themselves who eat the product they so painstakingly make appear to be almost endless. From staving off infections to helping them deal with cold temperatures, bees choose just the right kind of honey to aid their health and help them deal with environmental challenges even including detoxifying pesticides.

These tiny, winged, fuzzy gourmets somehow know just what type of honey to eat in order to keep their systems in good working order.

Catching up slowly, humans are now just scratching the surface of the vast array of health benefits derived directly from the natural bounty of our world, including honey.

As recently as just a few decades ago, honey wasn’t even mentioned when people referred to “functional foods”—in other words, those that confer health benefits apart from their initial nutrition, according to entomologist May Berenbaum, as reported in Knowable. “Even beekeepers—and certainly bee scientists—considered it nothing more than sugar water,” she states.

In recent years, of course, much research has gleaned that there indeed are a plethora of health benefits deriving from honey, including the healing of topical wounds. Now, scientists have found that the naturally-occurring chemicals in honey are used by these hard workers themselves to help them overcome cold temperatures, to fight off infections, and to live longer.

These new findings suggest that there may be ways for humans to help the bees use these substances even more to target the parasites and pesticides that have plagued bees in recent years, devastating their hives and causing great die-offs.

“It’s just such a remarkable substance, and I think people maybe still don’t quite appreciate it,” Berenbaum, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, adds.

Indeed, this unique substance is mostly sugar, which all the members of the hive members use for their daily nutrition; however, it also contains a small universe of enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and other substances which not only impart different flavors and textures but also offer vital health benefits to its makers, the bees.

Although a number of different insects actually produce honey, including bumblebees, stingless bees, and honey wasps, only honeybees, which belong to the species Apis, make enough of the precious liquid for large-scale human consumption.

Bumblebees can also make honey. This species, called Bombus pratorum, is found throughout Europe. Credit: Bernie/Public Domain

Bees have evolved to become the perfect pollinators, honey producers

Their history is nothing short of amazing, having evolved over millions of years into the perfectly-adapted flyers who gather pollen, thereby fertilizing most of our plants on Earth while making honey for their and our delectation.

Bees diverged from wasps approximately 120 million years ago, when there was a great spike in the number of flowering plants across the world. The new diversity in such plants combined with a change in the behavior of bees in that they began feeding pollen, rather than insects, to their larvae. All this made possible the evolutionary changes that led to the creation of the 20,000 bee species that exist today on the globe.

Along the way, bees began adding flower nectar to the pollen, which had the huge benefit of allowing the pollen to be molded into easily-carried balls. Crucially, they also developed glands that secreted wax, which of course led to the creation of honeycombs, the incredibly efficient system of storing liquid nectar and solid pollen separately.

Christina Grozinger, an entomologist at Penn State University, explains the beauty behind the intricate system, saying “The wax allows for a very flexible building material,” adding that honeybees mold the wax into hexagons, which providentially is the most efficient storage shape, as they stack tightly together. “It’s an engineering feat,” marvels Grozinger.

The tightly-packed cells have yet another advantage in that their larger surface area means that water evaporates more quickly from the comb, fostering less growth of microbes, which is crucial in the overall health of bees, who live so closely together in the hive.

When bees gather nectar from flowers, the amazing process toward the production of honey begins. Each bee removes the nectar with her tongue and then stores it in her “honey stomach,” designed for this purpose alone. There, enzymes such as invertase, mix in with the nectar.

Intricate assembly line of workers produces precious substance so bees can consume honey

This substance divides the sucrose molecules of the nectar in half; the rest is the simpler sugars of fructose and glucose.

Perhaps most amazingly of all, researchers have found that most likely, bees themselves cannot generate invertase and that it is a dedicated microbe that dwells in the guts of bees that actually manufacture it.

As soon as the bee buzzes her way back to the hive after going from flower to flower,  she regurgitates her nectar to the first bees in charge of the manufacture of honey in what can only be viewed as an assembly line.

The precision of this process would be the envy of Henry Ford, with the next bees adding yet more enzymes to the nectar and decreasing the water content, which creates even more breaking down of the sugary substance and precludes microbes from growing.

After depositing their precious payload into a perfectly-formed hexagonal cell, the bees cause yet more water to be evaporated from it by fanning their delicate wings. At this point, yet another enzyme, called glucose oxidase, makes some of the glucose in the cells turn into into gluconic acid, which helps preserve the precious delicacy.

The addition of this enzyme results in a lowering of the pH, which increases the acidity of the honey, and also has the incredible offshoot of producing hydrogen peroxide, which also prevents the growth of microbes, while it can become toxic if too much of it is present.

Every cell is perfectly-balanced mini universe

But Nature has this all under control, because the pollens and yeasts brought in from outside help destroy any surplus of the peroxide, making sure there is an equilibrium in the honeycomb.

Only then is this tiny, perfectly-balanced universe capped off with yet more wax, sealing each cell until nurse bees feed the honey to others as needed, or it is stored for use during cold, rainy days.

Berenbaum’s interest in honey production was sparked by her knowledge that nectars full of phytochemicals which repel pests and help in a plant’s growth process.

She wondered what might be happening to these chemicals as they rode along in the nectar when the hard-working bees brought it back to the hive.

Indeed, in 1998, her research team discovered that different types of honey did feature different levels of antioxidants, according to the flowers used by the bees in the harvesting of the nectar.

Berenbaum also discovered that honeybees that were given sugar water mixed with two honey phytochemicals, p-coumaric acid and the antioxidant quercetin, were able to tolerate pesticides better than those who were fed normal honey.

Incredibly, the bees that had drunk the spiked water also lived longer than whose who had a normal diet, as she and her team reported in the journal Insects in 2017.

Additional phytochemicals in honey, such as abscisic acid not only boosts the immunity of bees, but also improves wound healing and their tolerance of cold temperatures, according to the research.

Bees drawn to phytochemical-laced honey

Perhaps most notably, powerful plant-derived phytochemicals including thymol, derived from thyme plants, owners the amounts of fungal spores by more than half and have even been shown to inhibit the growth of bacteria that are behind European and American foulbrood.

This latter disease is the most devastating of all to bees, leading some beekeepers to have to destroy entire hives.

Other phytochemicals, including caffeine, gallic acid and p-coumari acid, may increase the health of honeybees’ gut microbiome, allowing them to better fight off parasitic infections, according to Berenbaum’s researchers published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology last year.

Strikingly, the bees even have been shown to deliberately choose the type of honey that is best for what ails them, as seen in the research of entomologist Silvio Erler, who gave parasite-infected honeybees four varieties of honey from which to choose.

Biodiversity needed for upkeep of honeybee “pharmacy”

“We simply gave them a choice,” Erler, who works at the Julius Kühn-Institut in Germany, explains. Those bees who were ill preferred honey derived from sunflowers, which was the best medicine to fight the infection, having the highest antibiotic activity, according to the team’s paper, published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

Of course, even if these techniques have proven that honeybees make use of beneficial honey types, their numbers are dwindling rapidly due to the diseases that have raced through their populations across the US.

The country’s beekeepers report that they lost 45 percent of their colonies just between April 2020 and April 2021, constituting the second worst year since a survey on bee health began in 2006.

Erler says bees’ ability to choose between varieties of honey that are produced from different flowers, including black locust flowers and sunflowers, is crucial for their health. “We go to the pharmacy…and say we need this for the headache and this for stomach pain. And in the pharmacy, we have all these together.”

The flowers also must be available throughout each growing season—something that is lacking in today’s gigantic monoculture farms.

Such biodiversity is not seen in the huge agricultural enterprises where almonds, apples, pumpkins, and pears are grown, Berenbaum notes.

Arathi Seshadri, an entomologist at the United States Department of Agriculture Honey Bee Health Lab in Davis, California, explains that because of this revelation, the US Department of Agriculture now gives incentives to landowners when they create wildlife areas from former croplands, through the Conservation Reserve Program. “Agriculture has to go on,” Seshadri notes, “but it also has to sustain pollinators.”

Another way to help make sure bees can choose what types of honey they need to consume is for beekeepers to leave some honey that was made from a variety of flowers in the hive so that bees can use this natural pharmacy whenever they feel the need.

Bees are now recognized for their crucial role in agriculture across the world after many decades of being used as nothing more than disposable workers in the pollination process on farms. Berenbaum, who long ago realized these indispensable animals were unappreciated at best, says all the recent research will at least help the bees in their fight to survive. “I’m glad,” she concludes, “to see it’s finally attracting some attention.”


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